Many years ago I routinely clipped coupons, but over time I found that I wasn’t really saving any money. Instead, I fell into a trap wherein I’d buy an item just because I had a coupon for it. Sometimes I’d buy things I wouldn’t ordinarily purchase and didn’t really need. Other times I’d buy something I needed, like toilet paper, but would buy the name brand I had the coupon for even if the store brand without a coupon was less expensive.
With our new budget, however, I’m particularly interested in saving money on our groceries and toiletries. So I’ve been looking for tips online about how to maximize the use of coupons. Here’s what I’ve learned:
- Coupon stack. Coupon stacking refers to using manufacturers’ coupons in conjunction with store discounts. When coupons are released by manufacturers, stores often follow suit by discounting the same item. Experienced couponers don’t use their valuable manufacturers’ coupons without additional discounts from the store. Manufacturers’ coupons are usually good for about 4-6 weeks. Grocery stores and drug stores offer discounts on items for one week and will rotate their discounts about every six weeks. If you have a coupon for an item that isn’t currently on sale at the store, wait to use your manufacturers’ coupon until it is on sale.
- Give up brand loyalty. If Colgate toothpaste is on sale and you have a coupon for it but you normally use Crest, well, buy Colgate. This makes sense to me, of course, but there are some products I’m not willing to give up because I love them. Below I detail how I broke this rule during my recent trip to CVS (although I still managed to get a pretty good deal).
- Shop for bargains, not items. By reviewing the coupons you have in conjunction with store discounts, choose to purchase items because they’re bargains, not necessarily because you need them at the moment. This is a tough idea for me because we are trying to live on a weekly budget. Why would I buy toilet paper this week if I don’t currently need it? The answer is because for items that will necessarily be needed and used at some point – like toilet paper – buy it when there is a bargain and stock up.
- Shop at multiple stores. To get the best bargains, it may be necessary to shop at multiple stores. For me, I do this sparingly because I just don’t have the time to drive to several different stores to do my shopping. That being said, I do routinely go to the grocery store for food items and the drugstore for toiletries in the course of a week. Also, I sometimes will go to our big chain grocery store followed by a trip to Trader Joe’s a few days later. I could easily plan better to save more by shopping for specific sale items at the different stores.
- Make multiple purchases at the same store. I address this money-saving technique below as I recount my recent trip to CVS pharmacy.
Putting My Coupons in Action
Using the tips above, I decided to see whether I could score some good deals using coupons. Mark bought a Sunday paper for $2.00 just so we could get the coupon inserts (I think if you’re really savvy, you could get the inserts for free by going to your local library and ask for them from one of the several Sunday papers they get). The Sunday paper also had the CVS flyer that lists the in-store sale items for the week.
CVS offers a free discount program called “Extra Care” which works in the same manner as grocery store customer discount cards. My Extra Care card hangs on my key chain and the teller scans it when I pay for my items. CVS only offers discounts to Extra Care members. CVS also offers Extra Care Bucks (called by experienced couponers “ECBs”) to members. ECBs can be used on anything in the store. An example of an ECB deal might be something like this: buy Dove liquid soap on sale from $4 to $3 and earn $1 ECB. That means that a shopper will pay $3 for the soap and the receipt will show an additional coupon for $1 Extra Care Buck to be used on the next purchase.
With the Sunday newspaper coupon inserts and the CVS flyer laid out on the dining room table, I followed rule #3 above and looked for bargains. First up, I reviewed the CVS flyer for items I knew we could use (either now or in the near future). Then I leafed through the coupon inserts to see if there were any matching coupons for those items. When I found those coupons, I cut them out.
At CVS stores there is a special red machine which scans items for a price check. If you scan your Extra Care card, it will automatically generate coupons for you. You can scan your card more than once; the machine will tell you when you’ve reached your coupon limit. I’d never noticed the machine when shopping at CVS before, but I learned about it while doing my “smart couponing” research. At our local CVS, the red scanning machine is located just to the side of the front registers.
So here is the play-by-play of my recent shopping trip to CVS.
From a previous trip to CVS, I had two coupons:
- $2.50 off CVS brand items worth $12 or more
- $1 Extra Care Buck
On the way into the store, I scanned my Extra Care card twice at the red scanner machine and got the following five coupons:
- $2 off 2 bars of soap
- $2 off $10 worth of CVS cosmetics
- Buy 2 Hershey’s candy bars, get 1 free
- $1 off 2 CVS brand Earth Essentials Cleaning products
- $2.50 off CVS brand items worth $12 or more
Some of these coupons weren’t relevant to what I wanted to buy that day (and might never buy – I doubt I’ll use the CVS cosmetics coupon or the one for Hershey’s candy bars).
I went to the soap aisle and put the following things in my cart which we routinely use and were either out of or close to it:
CVS was offering a special: buy $20 of CVS brand facial cleansing/moisturizing products, get $5 ECBs.
I went to the register with my items and here’s how the cost broke down:
- 2 bars of soap: $3.79 each
- Liquid cleanser: $8.49
- Moisturizing cream: $10.49
Total without tax: $26.56
Then I used three of the CVS coupons I mentioned above: $1.00 ECB, and the two coupons for $2.50 off CVS brand items worth $12 or more. I tried to use the coupon I had for $2 off 2 bars of soap, but the teller’s scanning machine rejected it (I guess I’d used my coupon limit; I can use that coupon another time).
Total without tax using the coupons: $20.56 (19% savings)
As an aside, the products above are the CVS version of Cetaphil products. I started using Cetaphil products over 15 years ago and I love them. They’re very gentle (the liquid soap is especially good as a body wash for babies and a facial cleanser for people with sensitive skin). As an extra aside, I’m actually not a big fan of antibacterial soaps which these bar soaps are, but CVS was out of the non-antibacterial-Cetaphil-knock-off bar soap. Anyhow, the CVS versions of the Cetaphil products are just as good and about 2/3 the price. But, I broke coupon rule #2 above – don’t be loyal to a particular brand. Had I been willing to purchase any soap and moisturizer, I would have saved a lot more money.
The bottom of my receipt from this transaction had my $5 ECB coupon for spending over $20 in CVS products, so following rule #6 — make multiple purchase transactions at the same store –I tore off my $5 coupon and went shopping for a few more items at CVS. It was time to put rule #1 — coupon stack — to work.
Here’s what I bought:
I had manufacturers’ coupons from the Sunday paper for all of these items and CVS was offering additional discounts on all of them. Here’s the breakdown:
- Oil of Olay facial moisturizer: $8.99 original price, $2.00 off using CVS discount, and $2.00 off using manufacturer’s coupon. Final cost: $4.99 (44% savings)
- Nivea shower gel: $6.00 original price, $1.11 off using CVS discount, and $4.00 off using manufacturer’s coupon. Final cost: $0.88 (85% savings)
- Tampax tampons: $3.79 original price, $0.82 off using CVS discount, and $1.00 off using manufacturer’s coupon. Final cost: $1.97 (48% savings)
- Always pads: $3.79 original price, $0.82 off using CVS discount, and $1.00 off using manufacturer’s coupon. Final cost: $1.97 (48% savings)
Then I gave the teller my $5 ECBs coupon that I had earned in my first transaction.
Final total (without tax): $4.81.
Had I bought all of these items at their original price, the total would have been $22.57. This represents a 79% savings.
Now, truth be told, I don’t normally buy shower gel (we routinely use the bar soaps and liquid soap I bought in the first transaction instead). But, we’re out of liquid hand soap. Since I got the Nivea shower gel for just $0.88, this is substantially cheaper than buying the same amount of liquid hand soap. I’ll just refill our old hand soap dispensers with the Nivea shower gel instead.
Here’s the final cost-savings tally of my trip to CVS:
Total (before tax) on all merchandise before using coupons and CVS Extra Care discounts: $49.13
Total (before tax) on all merchandise after using coupons and CVS Extra Care discounts: $25.37
Total savings: $23.76 (48% savings)
While I’m very happy with this result, I should tell you that this amount of savings is nothing compared to what experienced couponers can save. There are some people who are so sophisticated at this that they can walk out of stores paying next to nothing for a large amount of items. Oh well, there’s a learning curve to being coupon-smart, and I’m definitely still learning.